HEARTS’ hopes of pulling off an improbable recovery and reaching the group stages of the Europa League were eventually dashed last night – but only after they had come within three minutes of taking the tie into extra-time.
Scorers: Liverpool - Suarez (87); Hearts - Templeton (84)
Bookings: Hearts - Barr
Watched by club owner Vladimir Romanov, the Edinburgh team had held out against wave after wave of Liverpool pressure, and then sensationally took the lead on the night with an 85th-minute goal by David Templeton.
That made the aggregate score 1-1, Liverpool having won the first leg thanks to an Andy Webster own goal. But then, with time running out, Luis Suarez spared his team’s blushes with a fine individual goal which ensured his team won this qualifying tie 2-1 on aggregate.
It was a disappointing end to an inspired evening from Hearts, who defended defiantly and sensibly throughout, while never losing sight of their need for an equaliser. A year on from the 0-0 draw at Tottenham, they had achieved another draw against a leading English side, with two significant differences. This time they had not begun the second leg 5-0 down. And this time, their squad was smaller, and with a lot less experience than a year ago.
Given Hearts’ fine performance in last week’s first leg at Tynecastle, John McGlynn predictably – and wholly justifiably – went with the same starting line-up.
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers had hinted at restoring some of his star names to the home 11, and he was true to his word, bringing in Steven Gerrard, Martin Skrtel and Suarez. Winger Raheem Sterling, such a threat at Tynecastle, was on the bench, as was the starting striker from a week ago, Fabio Borini.
Callum Paterson quickly made his presence felt for Hearts, and his off-target shot in the fifth minute was the first attempt on goal from either side. A minute later Suarez made a dangerous run deep into the box before seeing his cross-cum-shot blocked, but on the whole Hearts kept Liverpool quiet in the opening exchanges.
From around the quarter-hour, however, the home team began to press forward in more determined fashion. Stewart Downing, playing at left-back, showed his preference for attacking play in a swift foray down the wing. Suarez’ looping header from his cross was goalbound, but Marius Zaliukas was able to hook the ball away just short of the line.
Hearts kept their shape well, and continued to push forward sensibly, and might have been rewarded with a penalty midway through the half after Paterson went down in the box following contact with Jamie Carragher. The Russian referee was well placed to judge the incident, though, and waved play on.
At the other end, Jamie MacDonald spilled an Adam Morgan shot but gathered the rebound just in time, and then Gerrard skipped through the middle of the Hearts defence but his chipped shot was parried by the goalkeeper. In the 33rd minute Morgan netted from a few yards out after a break up the right, but the assistant referee’s flag was already up for an earlier offside, and Mr Bezborodov upheld his colleague’s ruling.
Hearts were penned back inside their own half for much of the time between then and the interval, but when the whistle went they could be satisfied with their efforts.
After the break, Liverpool barely concocted a decent attack during the first ten minutes. But the sight of Sterling warming up on the touchline was a warning that Rodgers was intent on cranking up the pressure, and the introduction of the winger for Morgan in the 61st minute signalled a marked increase in the tempo of the contest.
Two minutes after the substitution, Suarez should have opened the scoring. As Zaliukas stood still and appealed for offside, the Uruguayan raced through the middle and took the ball wide of MacDonald, but carried it too far. By the time he had regained possession the defence were back to block.
Suarez then tried his luck again with a shot which spun wide of the target, and Sterling did the same less than a minute later. With Liverpool threatening to overrun his team, McGlynn brought Andy Driver on for John Sutton, with Paterson moving forward to replace the latter as the lone target man.
With 20 minutes left Suarez again looked odds-on to score as a defence-splitting pass put him through on MacDonald, but the goalkeeper threw himself at the attacker’s feet and got to the ball first. Five minutes later, Dale Carrick came on for Arvydas Novikovas, who had run himself into the ground with some much-needed auxiliary defence. At the same time, Borini came on for Jordan Henderson.
Hearts became more adventurous as time ebbed away, and with ten minutes left Mehdi Taouil tried his luck with a long-range shot, to no more effect than the similar efforts from Liverpool. Four minutes on, and Templeton tried something similar – and this time was repaid for his enterprise as Pepe Reina let the 20-yard shot squirm under his body and into the net.
Stung into life, Liverpool had five minutes in which to prevent the match going into the extra half-hour and Suarez struck in the 87th minute to spare his team. Using a combination of speed and close control to make his way deep into the left side of the box, he timed his shot perfectly this time, firing it low past MacDonald from an acute angle.
It was Hearts’ turn to throw everything into the search for a goal to level the tie, but in stoppage time it was Liverpool who looked more likely to increase their aggregate lead. Even so, the home support felt relieved at the final whistle, while the away fans proudly stood to applaud their team off.
Liverpool: Reina, Carragher, Kelly, Skrtel, Gerrard, Henderson (Borini 76), Downing, Allen, Shelvey, Suarez, Morgan (Sterling 62). Subs not used: Jones, Johnson, Enrique, Agger, Coates.
Hearts: MacDonald, Grainger, McGowan, Barr, Webster, Zaliukas, Paterson, Templeton, Taouil, Sutton (Driver 66), Novikovas (Carrick 75). Subs not used: Hamilton, McGowan, McHattie, Holt, Robinson.